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Afghanistan: UN Survey Results Show Risks From Poor Water, Air Quality

The UN's first comprehensive survey of the Afghan environment has been completed and -- after more than two decades of war -- the results are not encouraging. Air and water quality in the country's largest towns is badly degraded, placing the population at immediate risk. The survey also reveals chemical pollution, massive deforestation, declining water resources, and threats to endangered species. RFE/RL speaks to the director of the UN's Environmental Program in Afghanistan about the survey and its findings.

Prague, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) says air and water quality in Afghanistan's largest cities is badly degraded and that citizens are at immediate risk. This is one of the conclusions of a comprehensive survey of the environment undertaken to assess the effects of more than 20 years of conflict and three years of drought.

Pekka Haavisto, the task force chairman for UNEP, spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from his office in Kabul. He said surveys of drinking water in four cities -- Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif -- showed high levels of fecal contamination. "Regarding the urban pollution issues, I think these samples we made in these four towns, and regarding the quality of the drinking water, we found E. coli bacteria in most of the samples. It showed quite clearly the cross-contamination between wastewater and drinking water," he said.

Haavisto said the degree of contamination is surprisingly high and that the population is under immediate threat. "The cross-contamination from the sewage water and the wastewater to the drinking water and groundwater resources [was surprising] because it puts people immediately under risk because their drinking water might be polluted or contaminated."

The UNEP report shows high levels of air pollution in urban areas, mostly from car and truck exhaust and the burning of toxic materials. It also notes serious industrial chemical pollution that puts workers at risk.

Haavisto said, for example, that researchers found a shoe factory in Kabul with very high levels of chemical toxicity, and child laborers exposed to the chemicals. "One was this shoe factory in Kabul where children were working in extremely chemically polluted conditions...and not only working, but sleeping there. I think these kinds of [problems] were quite [surprising to the Afghan authorities]," he said.

The UNEP assessment, begun last September, focused on a wide range of environmental problems, including deforestation, drought, damage to the country's national parks, and the special problems of the remote, high-elevation Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan, which shares a tiny stretch of border with China. Some 20 Afghan and international experts examined 38 urban sites in the four major cities and 35 rural locations. The report concludes that more than two decades of warfare have "degraded the environment to the extent it now presents a major stumbling block for the country's reconstruction efforts."

Haavisto said the problems are, indeed, serious, but that there are some positive findings, as well. He said the UNEP team that surveyed the Wakhan Corridor, for example, confirmed the presence of several endangered species, including the snow leopard and Marco Polo sheep, as well as several species of wolf, brown bear, and Asian ibex. "The positive issue from the Wakhan Corridor is that the nature is still quite untouched in some of these areas, and, for example, signs of snow leopards could be seen there."

He added, however, that poaching is a continuing concern. "The negative side reporting from that team is that you can find skins of snow leopards on sale in [the markets] of Kabul, so there is this kind of hunting and trading of rare species. We put in the report a kind of strong message that [trade] in rare species should be stopped," Haavisto said.

The UN report contains more than 160 recommendations -- some calling for immediate measures to improve air and water quality, with others focused on longer-term efforts such as restoring forests and managing scarce water resources.

The problem, UNEP concedes, is finding central authorities who can enforce environmental standards throughout the country. "The issue in Afghanistan is that there has to be somebody who is seriously dealing with the environment -- putting the rules and developing the laws and the ongoing implementation. We are very much looking forward to working with the Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources, and Environment," Haavisto said.

Money, naturally, is an important issue. UNEP now intends to target international donors in an effort to convince them that the environment is a good place to put their money.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.